Iris is a young aspiring artist who longs to escape the drudgery of her job painting dolls in an emporium. Striking, with a twisted collarbone, she catches the eye of two men: Louis Frost, an up-and-coming painter from the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, and Silas, a disturbed taxidermist, who supplies artists with creatures for their paintings. As Iris is drawn into the fold of the brotherhood, her life hangs in the balance.
When a book refuses to shy away from squalor and brutality while venerating the passionate and beautiful, it is always a memorable experience ... Joining this list of haunting novels is Elizabeth Macneal’s unapologetically lush debut, The Doll Factory, which will doubtless prove as much of an obsession for its readers as the art model Iris Whittle is to the men around her ... Macneal’s immersive epic stays firmly rooted in historical fact, inviting comparison to Erik Larson and The Devil in the White City ... Macneal is clearly engrossed in the Pre-Raphaelite movement and especially in the plight of women who were churned through the gristmill of poverty and spat out again. There is hardly an aspect of Victorian London that she has not mastered ... People who scoff at Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre may belittle The Doll Factory, with its strong whiff of fairy-tale romanticism. Ignore them. Iris is a dreamer, and dreamers are inherently romantic.
The final chapters of Elizabeth Macneal’s delightfully creepy novel kept me screwed to my office chair ... What more could one want from a Victorian thriller? But Macneal delivers even more. The Doll Factory, which is already a hit in England, offers an eerily lifelike re-creation of 1850s London laced with a smart feminist critique of Western aesthetics. It’s a perfect blend of froth and substance, a guilty pleasure wrapped around a provocative history lesson ... Macneal deftly paints her fictional heroine into the colorful lives of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood ... They strut through these pages radiating all their brash brilliance, fragile enthusiasms and comic eccentricities (including their fondness for wombats) ... This exuberant re-creation of London is fascinating, but it wasn’t Macneal’s feminist critique of the Pre-Raphaelites’ aesthetics that almost made me miss a flight to California. Credit for that goes to a taxidermist named Silas, whose story slithers along underneath the tale of Iris’s liberation.
Novels set in the Victorian era are routinely described as 'Dickensian'. Few of them warrant the adjective. However, in its evocation of the seething energy of 1850s London, its immersion in the detail of the 19th-century city’s everyday life and in its fascination with the macabre and the eccentric, Elizabeth Macneal’s debut novel does feel genuinely Dickensian. Add a keen exploration of the restrictions that were placed on women and the possessiveness of men, and you get a remarkable example of historical fiction ... Macneal charts her heroine’s quest to escape her confinements, metaphorical and actual, by the men who admire her in a story full of life, colour and intelligence.